Towards a More Inclusive Judaism: Bridging the Distance

By Rabbi Felicia L. Sol | Issue Date: Winter 2015

I can trace my choice not to go to rabbinical school to a very particular moment in time. Rabbi Matthew Cutler was driving me home from a youth group retreat where I had been the songleader. As a senior in college, I was sharing my questions about my next steps. Should I become a Jewish educator or a rabbi? Rabbi Cutler asked, “Do you believe in God?” I feared the question. I felt incompetent to answer it, and I had never done any serious exploration of what I believed. At that moment, I decided to apply for a master’s degree in Jewish Education and pursue my commitment to the Jewish community, but retreat from the idea of becoming a rabbi.

During the first year of my master’s program in Jerusalem, I did a lot of reflecting on why I was so ambivalent about the rabbinate—even as I had a deep sense of calling to pray and study Torah, to create and support community, and to serve the Jewish people. After much thinking, I realized that, beyond my questions of belief in God, I had grown up in an egalitarian, liberal Jewish community. I had been raised to believe I could be anything I wanted to be, and yet I saw no one on the bimah who looked like me. It wasn’t that I thought I couldn’t be a rabbi. Intellectually, I knew I could, but my own sense of seeing myself on the pulpit was blocked by the lack of women role models before me. Obviously, you know the rest of the story—I became a rabbi—but what bridged the distance?

In that year of living in Israel—studying, reflecting and immersing myself in it all—I became aware that I had a deep sense of calling to be a rabbi. Though I had fears and reservations, I increasingly felt that I should walk right towards them, not run away from them. I came to realize that, instead of having a critique of the rabbinate from the outside, I could choose to become a rabbi in my own image. I decided I would become the kind of rabbi that felt consonant with who I was and what I believed God was asking me to be in the world.

Fast-forward two years: I was studying modern Jewish thought with Rabbi David Ellenson, and we read Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective by Dr. Judith Plaskow. All of a sudden, I had a much larger understanding of what had informed my ambivalence, even suspicion. Although I was deeply engaged as a Jew—a committed member and leader in my synagogue, a long time camper and counselor at Jewish summer camp, a regional leader in New England for my youth group, living in Israel in college—there was something about the patriarchal structure in the stories I studied. The characters in them, the names of God that were utilized, and the people I saw left me subconsciously marginalized. I do not attribute this feeling to any particular act of any rabbi or teacher—just the outcome of thousands of years of patriarchal tradition and a society that rendered more power, authority and status to men. While I was so drawn into the Jewish tradition, its practices, and the Jewish communities I was blessed to be a part of, something was also telling me I didn’t belong. Standing Again at Sinai gave me language to articulate my desire for an embrace of “my Torah” as a woman: a breakdown of the power structure, different language, and metaphors to name God. Its critique of the patriarchal tradition also created a possibility and demand for renewal and restoration—not just for the sake of women, but for the sake of everyone. God, too.

Twenty-five years later, an enormous amount has changed in Jewish life and the larger society around us. More than half of the students in liberal rabbinical schools are women. Prayer language has expanded and changed to reflect more feminine images of God, as well as more language of an imminent God and less the one of “the man on a large throne in the heavens.” Creative Jewish ritual has emerged to respond to, celebrate and support moments in life that Jewish tradition did not honor previously, from simhat bat (ceremonies for baby girls); to prayers and rituals for miscarriage, divorce, the arrival of a girl’s first period,and menopause; to the creation of Rosh Hodesh women’s and girls’ groups to mark the coming of a new Hebrew month and the potential for renewal.

There is much to celebrate. Not only for the fuller inclusion of women into Jewish life, but also for the pathways towards an expression of Jewish life that, in many ways, were birthed through the Jewish feminist and at-large feminist movements. It is likely that the more expansive ways spirituality is being experienced in Jewish life—meditation, yoga, more affective learning, healing services—must give credit to the breakthroughs made by Dr. Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai and many other leaders who paved the path for a Judaism that is more inclusive, just, expansive and open.

I am profoundly grateful to Rabbi Matthew Cutler, who asked me the right question at the right time that sent me on a path of discovery. I am also indebted to the Torah of Dr. Plaskow for giving me the language of critique, inspiration to open up new pathways in the search to live out my calling as a rabbi, and for the blessings of creativity and justice that emerged with her book, from which we all reap the benefits.